The Emerging Shia Crescent Symposium: Implications for U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Monday, June 5, 2006

RICHARD N. HAASS:  If those standing will sit, if those seated will stay seated—let me welcome you to the third and final panel of this extravaganza.

One of the many ways in which I was—I’ve been remiss is not to acknowledge and thank publicly Steve Heinz and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for their support of today.

This panel is an embarrassment of riches.  Any one of the three individuals to my left is talent enough to carry this.  The fact that we have these three individuals really is a treasure trove.

I won’t give you their bios; it’s in the book.  What’s important is the link that brings together these three individuals, and you’re sitting in it—I don’t mean on it; you’re sitting in it—which is the council. 

Greg Gause was here as a senior fellow doing distinguished work, in particular on the Persian Gulf; Fouad Ajami, one of his many connections to fame is that he’s a member of our board of directors and a frequent “appearer” in the pages of Foreign Affairs, as is Greg; and Vali Nasr is an adjunct senior fellow here and has also got an article coming out in Foreign Affairs.

So for those of you who are conspiracy theorists and think that the council controls the world, this is further additional ammunition that we in fact do just that.

What we heard so far were two panels, the first one essentially sketching out what the reality is of the Shia world, if you will, and the second panel grappled with the question about whether we should be bothered by it.  I’m not quite sure they came to an answer.  And indeed, a lot of the conversation, one sensed almost a conflating, if such a word exists, between their discussions of an alleged or potential Shia threat and an alleged or potential Iranian threat.

So let’s, as they say in parts of somewhere, let’s unpack that.  And let’s begin there, which is to what extent, when one speaks of Shia as a phenomenon internationally, can one separate it out from aspects ofIran, whether Iran’s active foreign policy, Iran’s example.  If you will, how much is there—is there of a  “Shia international” as opposed to simply separate groups of people who happen to have it as their religious orientation here or there.

Vali, why don’t we start with you, because you have the disadvantage of sitting next to me.  (Laughter.)

VALI R. NASR:  Well, I think it would be a mistake to think that there is such as think as pan-Shiism that is being controlled form one place; it’s a single movement.  It doesn’t exist.

Shias in the Arab world, in South Asia, they share a common problem.  It’s a problem of marginality.  Whether they are majorities or whether they are minorities, they are marginalized from power.  They are essentially asking for the same thing.  And they do have an attachment to Iran.  It’s an attachment of culture and faith, and does not mean that they are controlled by Iran.  In fact, it is more often, particularly in the Arab world, that the Sunnis define the Shias as the client of Iran than the Shias themselves do.  I mean it’s natural for Shias to look to Iran as their coreligionists for support.  There are bonds of business; there are bonds of religious relationship, for instance.  Iranians migrated to the Levant, Shia Iranians migrated to the Levant, et cetera, a long time ago.  There are hundreds of thousands of Iranians will go to Najaf in Iraq and the like.

And I think one of the biggest mistakes we can make in foreign policymaking is to bite into this bait of conflating containing Iran with containing Shiism, because if we do so, we essentially accomplish two things:  one is that we will entrench sectarianism as an article of American foreign policy and as a fact on the ground in the region, because we will have to contain and deal with Iraq.  If that means containing Shiism, that essentially means sectarian foreign policy.  Secondly is that it will wed us to supporting the calcified authoritarian political structure in the regime, which is right now trying to sort of resuscitate itself by claiming to be the vanguard in terms of containing Shiism. 

Richard Haass and Vali Nasr discussing the various implications
for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Nasr stressed it would be a
mistake to confuse containing Iran with containing Shiism.

HAASS:  So is the consequence, then, (of ?) saying we’ve got an Iran policy, and then separately from that, if there’s not pan-Shiism, what then does theUnited States have?  Does the United Stateshave a democracy policy?  Does it have a promote-economic-change policy in the region?  Because you are dealing with a lot of states that Shia populations—what are the policy consequences of that analysis?

NASR:  Well, I think the democracy policies—the train for the democracy policies already left the station.  In other words, the administration, rightly or wrongly, cast that die, and that die has been cast.  And expectations have been raised among the Shia.  There are right ways of doing this and there are problematic ways of it.  We often forget about the example of Afghanistan.  For instance, after the fall of the Taliban the United Stateswas very instrumental in actually including Shias in the Afghan political society for the first time in Afghan history.   It is not possible for a Shia to be president of the country.  And Shia religion, law, is now recognized under the Afghan constitution.  It’s a good model of how you devolve power from the existing Sunni establishment to include the Shias who don’t want separatism; they don’t want revolution necessarily.  They want to just essentially be recognized as citizens.

And then we have the example of Iraq actually have, for varieties of reasons, have become messy.  And ultimately I don’t think the United States can make a decision that it’s going to stop this devolution of power to Shiites in its tracks.  The question for us is, how can we manage it so that we will have more Afghanistans and fewer Iraqs?

HAASS:  Fouad, let me turn to you.  And you and Greg are obviously welcome to opine on anything that we’re talking about up here or earlier.

Well, let me try to go back to basics—because I don’t claim to be an expert, and the three of you are—which is, is there anything either about Shia ideology or about what you might call the Shia political predicament in today’s world that makes them potentially problematic, or is an opportunity there for the United States?  It then seems to me one doesn’t have to speak in terms of threat.  Maybe there’s an opportunity, given things we heard before about intellectual creativity, democracy and so forth.

FOUAD AJAMI:  Thank you.  I actually did something for this meeting which I never do for my seminars.  I did some preparation, which is unusual.  (Laughter.)  You can ask all my students; they’ll testify to that.  (Laughter.)

And I do hover under some disadvantages.  I am a Shia, or at least was born one.  This is the faith into which I was born.  I was born in Lebanon.  And 20 years ago I wrote a book, I think it was “The Vanished Imam:   Musa Al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon.”  It was sort of my introduction to the question of Shiism.  It was too early.  It was too early.  I came to it reluctantly because I didn’t want to cast myself as a Shia, if you will, because I didn’t want to make it easy for Arab intellectuals to dismiss what I was saying by say, ah, after all, he’s a Shia.  They did it anyway, so it didn’t quite work.  (Laughter.)

Now in preparing for today I just have a couple of quotations for you, which just—they’re interesting.  I feel like the people you—you know, when you interview authors on NPR, the author says, “as I said in my book”—you always have to say, “as I said in my book.” Well, as I—this is from my new book called “The Foreigner’s Gift:  The Arabs, the Americans, and the Iraqis in Iraq” (sic/”The Americans, the Arabs and the Iraqis in Iraq”), which will be released in four weeks.

I picked this couple of—this is the setting.  This is one setting.  It’s early in Bremer’s tenure.  This is from Bremer’s memoirs.  It’s June 4, 2003.  And Bremer is meeting with President Bush at the American air base in Qatar.  President Bush wants to know from his man on the scene if the American project in Iraq will work.  “Will they be able to run a free a country?” the president asked.  “Some of the Sunni leaders in the region doubt it.  They say all Shia are liars.  What’s your impressions?”

Now, all Shia are liars.  This is said by rulers that have never told the truth to anyone in the world about anything—(laughter)—whose general (code ?) is concealment.

Now Bremer to his credit—at least that’s what Bremer says—“Well, I don’t agree.  I’ve already met a number of honest moderate Shia, and I’m confident we can deal with them.”

This is, as I said, June 4, 2003.

Now let’s do a kind of—take a step back in history.  Consider this scene.  This is drawn from the furious diplomacy and intrigue that lead to the creation ofIraqin 1921.  This is Gertrude Bell.  She is now calling on Abdul Jiman Gilani (ph).  He is the natib (ph)—the natib (ph), the head, if you will, of the notables of Baghdad.

And she’s talking to the natibs (ph).  She’s trying to gauge the new order in Iraq.  And the natib (ph), of course now behind closed doors, says to her:  “Most of those who spoke against you are men without name or honor.  But I tell you to be aware of the Shia.  I have no animosity against the Shia.”  That’s like all my friends—some of my best friends are Jews by the way.  (Laughter.)  “I have no animosity against the Shia, but turn your eyes on the pages of history, and you will that the salient characteristic of the Shia is their volatility.  Did they not murder Moussa ibn Ali (ph), whom they now worship as God?” 

They don’t actually worship him as God.  But you know he could—the natib (ph) is a smart guy.  He thought Gertrude Bell was actually a believer in his version of history.  And she was. 

“Idolatry and mutability,” says the natib (ph), “are combined in them.  Place no reliance on them.”  Place no reliance on them.

The late Eli Khadduri (ph) described the order that emerged in Iraq as, he said it was an Anglo-Sunni regime.  Now the question was raised recently as to whether the new order inIraqwould be an American-Shia regime.  It’s not an American-Shia regime, but what the American invasion of Iraq has given the Shias is a chance, if you will, to lay a claim to power in their own country.  They can’t monopolize Iraq, and they don’t.  Trust me, I’ve been in Iraq in six times.  I’ve met with everyone, up and down the line, from Ayatollah Sistani to ordinary Iraqis.  This idea of this Shia monster running away with Iraq is a legend.  It’s a legend.

So now into this enter these two characters, the ruler of Jordan and the ruler ofEgypt.  They both are peddling the thesis of the Shia crescent.  One problem with the Shia crescent is factual.  This is empirical.  When the King of Jordan said there is a Shia crescent that runs from Iran to Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, there is only one little problem with that, small little problem.  Guess what.  There are no Shia inSyria.  (Laughter.)  It’s a little problem.  The thesis is too good.  We don’t—how could we allow this little fact to interfere with the thesis?

There are Alawites inSyria, and there is enormously bad blood between the Alawites and the Shia.  The Alawites are not Shia. 

So what exactly is Hosni Mubarak—what does he mean by the Shia—that the Shia are loyal to Iran?  It means he’s applying for a job from the King of Saudi Arabia and from Pax Americana.  

What does it mean when King Abdullah says the Shia crescent?  It means help me.  Invest in me, and I will be the praetorian guard of the Sunni order.

So yes, there are some Shia communities.  They are laying claim to their country.  The Shia are almost a majority in Lebanon alone—practically a majority today.  How could we deny them their rights?  And the rest I think you are familiar with.

So there is a Shia claim, but it’s a claim on their own lands.  And we are caught up—I mean the Pax Americana is caught up in that, and we can—that’s what we want to get into.

HAASS:  Let me follow on that.  Let me hit it to Greg, which is, if taken what we said this morning, that a lot of what animates or motivates Shia is a sense of being downtrodden, that they’ve gotten the short end of the stick, here we are in theMiddle East, which is largely Sunni dominated and American dominated.  If we are entering an era in which the Shia are going to realize a lot of their ambitions, isn’t there something about this which is inherently then risky, if not undesirable, from the American point of view or not?

F. GREGORY GAUSE III:  Well, I think that the Gulf area is going to be Shia dominated.  I don’t think that theLevantis going to be.  I think that there it’s just a—it’s a pure question of demographics.  Fouad and Vali both said that when you broke the Sunni minority hold on Iraq, the demographics of this—and Ray mentioned it in a previous panel—the demographics of this become inevitable.

It seems to me that there is a paradox here.  The paradox is that on the one hand there are—and this is going to be a three-handed paradox, so get ready for it—(laughter).  On the one hand, there’s enormous amounts of cross-border ties among Shia in the region.  The majority of Saudi Shia look to Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf as their marja, as their source of emulation.  And that’s an important cross-border influence that can’t be denied.

It’s undoubtedly true that the Iranian Revolution in the upsurge of its revolutionary fervor, like every revolution, tried to export the revolution and establish ties, some of them conspiratorial, with Shia communities throughout the region.  So there are important ties across borders among Shia. 

Secondly—and this is I think what we’ve left out of our discussion up till now—the second part of this paradox is, the state in this part of the world is an underestimated factor when we outsiders look at things.  We tend to be trapped in the notion that the Middle Eastern state is weak; it’s fragile; it’s false; it was drawn by colonialists, and nobody buys it.  And I think this is just fundamentally wrong.

The state is the most important political actor in all of these places.  It took American power to break the state in Iraq.  And we did; we broke it completely.  We not only conquered and broke the regime, but we then broke the state by breaking up the army and turning the bureaucracy on its head.

But that took American power to do it.  Nowhere else has that happened.  Even in the Iranian Revolution—was a huge changed from below, but the Iranian state persevered.  Those states are very strong, and they are the actors that most define the situation that the Shia find themselves in, and they are the ones that prevent this from being a Shia crescent or a Shia wave or whatever.

The third hand of the paradox is, though, as both Fouad and Vali said, the rulers in these countries, the Sunni rulers in places where there are Shia minorities, or like Bahrain, the Shia majority, are partially, truthfully—I think truthfully; they’re not complete liars—truthfully worried about what this means to their state.  And partially they’re selling this role.

So we’ve got this three-handed paradox. 

I think from the point of view of American policy, we say there is no Shia crescent; there is no Shia threat.  We deal with communities in countries.  And we have very different policies.  And that’s basically what we’re doing now.  So it’s not a big change.

I don’t think we need a Shia policy, and I think it would be a big mistake to have one.

HAASS:  Do we then need a policy—how would I put it?—that is a pure democratic policy?  Let me just—you mentioned Bahrain.  There you’ve got a situation where you’ve got a Shia majority demographically.  Needless to say it does not enjoy that degree of political power in any way commensurate with its demographic power.

Sooner or later, does the United States face an extraordinarily difficult choice there between essentially dancing with the girl we brought a long time ago or essentially sooner or later favoring a democratic revolution there?

GAUSE:  I’m very skeptical about democracy in the Middle East from the point of view of American interests, and it has nothing to do with Shias.  I think that public opinion in the Arab world for a large number of reasons is profoundly anti-American these days.  And if you have real democracy, public opinion affects politics.

I’d be—I’m very, very leery about the promotion of democracy anywhere in the Arab world as an American policy goal.  So I’m against the administration on that, at least the administration’s rhetoric.

And I think that American policy should be, we’ll deal with what happens in your country.   I mean, if you want a democracy, if it happens, if you get overthrown and a new government comes in, we’ll deal with that government too.

But I think it would be a mistake for us to usher in through pressure on existing elites real democratic processes right now which will yield governments that will be much more difficult for America to deal with.  But we should also have a clear policy to our clients in the region that says, look, we think that you should do some things to settle things down, because we can’t come to your aid if push comes to shove.

HAASS:  Let me ask a related question in a slightly different way.  A lot of our relations with the Shia have been based upon a geopolitical reality where, with the exception ofIran, they’ve not been dominant.

Imagine we move to a Middle East—clearly in Iraq we’re already getting there—where the Shia are ascendant.  It could happen elsewhere.  What does that do to Shia politics?  What happens to a Middle East that—where suddenly that circle is turned?  And what does the Middle East began to look like, and is that good or bad for the United States?

Council Board Member Fouad Ajami asserted
the American invasion of Iraq provided the
Iraqi Shia an opportunity to finally “lay a
claim to power in their own country,” but he
argued they “cannot monopolize Iraq.”

AJAMI:  There is a kind of—there is an Arab trauma, because we are staying really what the Arabs—the Arabs and the Shia Arabs—(inaudible)—Iran—again, Vali’s here, and I think we can get to Iran in a different way.

What has happened to the Arab world in the last three decades has been absolutely revolutionary.  And I’ll take you through it very quickly.  And it is something that the Arabs feel very deeply about.

In 1970, Damascus, the proud city of the Sunni bourgeoisie, was taken over by the Alawite soldiers—Hafez Assad and the gangs around him.

In 1983-84, Beirut, the proud city of the Sunni bourgeoisie, where the Shia could not even move into, West Beirut, even in my own lifetime, when my family came to West Beirut from the south, West Beirut became, if you will, a Shia preserve.

And then came 2003, and as Greg said exactly right, that the—(inaudible)—would have lasted 1,000 years.  We overthrew that.

So the Arab world has faced the following change:  The change in Damascus in 1970; the change in Beirut in 1984; the change inIraqin 2003.  So this is a trauma.

Now this threatens the Sunni entrenched interests.  It also changes the Shia; it changes them.  And the idea that we should be frightened—(inaudible)—Shiism, it should be slightly moderated.  I mean, take for example the links between the Shia of Iraq and the Shia of Lebanon.  Right now the Shia of Lebanon have never signed and they’ve never supported the American war in Iraq.  I can tell you in Najaf—(inaudible)—in Najaf talked to me with bitterness about the Shia of Lebanon, because they suspected or thought I was of Lebanese background and I should be told this.

So I think both the Sunni order will have to make way for this change, and the Shia themselves will be changed by the exercise of political power.  The Shia are now claimants to power in Lebanon.  Once you have power you will, by definition, change.

There was one interesting Sunni expression.  It comes from Iraq, but I’ll offer it to you.  The Sunnis used to say—(Arabic phrase)—which means, for us, which means, the Sunnis—(Arabic phrase)—is political power.  It belongs to us.  (Arabic phrase)—for you, the Shia self-flagellation.  But now the Shia are saying, no, no, it’s enough; we’ve self-flagellated enough.  (Laughter.)  We now want just what you guys had:  power, the army, embassies, jobs, money, state power.  There is nothing—it didn’t threaten me.  It doesn’t—and it shouldn’t threaten American power that the Shia of Iraq are bidding for power in their own country.

HAASS:  Can I just—let me just pin you down on that, because I think it’s an important point.

So if we have a situation where you have Shia primacy in Iraq, conceivably Lebanon, elsewhere, are you then basically saying that there is nothing potential—what’s the word?—particular, I guess I’d use that word, or peculiar about Shia exercise of political power that should give us pause?

AJAMI:  Well, I should actually commend—it shows you how our president and the chairman of our panel has been around government enough.  I want to say that he asked me the same question the same way—please forgive this, you know, pretension of grandeur—President Bush asked me last week at the White House.  This answers the question as to why people are—are academics being consulted or not?  Some academics are being consulted.  (Laughter.)  Some academics are being—there is a price you have to be paid to be consulted, and we can talk about that price intellectually.  (Laughter.)

And you have to be willing to share a certain kind of intellectual and political universe.  But the question is—you’re exactly right.  I mean is there something inherently revolutionary?  Yes, it would be, you know, it is going to be—no pun intended on this one—it shall be a bumpy ride for a while. 

The idea that the Shia will make their claim on political power in the affairs of the Arab world and that it will be peaceful is not really tenable.  It will be a very, very contested political game.  And we have to be willing to accept this.  And we must not be scared off by what the Jordanians and the Egyptians and others are telling us.

For example, it’s very interesting that the king of Jordan, who comes and talks about the Shia crescent, behind closed doors says to people in the administration, you know, I can help you out.  You know, we, the Hashemites, have good connections with the Shia.  Now you can have it, one or the other.  (Laughter.)  Either you are afraid of the Shia crescent as one person becoming a full moon—right?  I mean it’s nonsense.  It’s nonsense.  I mean, you just have to be willing to cede people claims to their own country.

HAASS:  Let me just follow up on one aspect.  Here we are on potentially the cost of a U.S. dialogue withIran, presumably about the nuclear issue; it could conceivably expand to all aspects of the relationship.

Two questions:  Is there any way in whichIran, as it approaches it, looks at it in any way about what are the consequence of this for the standing of Shia communities around the region?  Like is there a Shia dimension to Iranian thinking as they approach this negotiation?

NASR:  Well, for the past three, four years, there has been sort of a subdued debate about this withinIraq.  First of all, strategically, the Iranians have benefited greatly from what happened inIraq, not so much becauseIraqbecame Shia but because Iraq stopped being Ba’athist.

Ba’athist Iraq, Arab nationalist Iraq, was always a threat to Iran, since the Shah’s time period.  And the fact—the Shia revival in Iraq, the Shia ascendance—more than the fact that it’s Shia, it’s important because it’s not Sunni.

And I think the Iranians will look at the same thing in Bahrain.  They will look at the same thing in Saudi Arabia.  They don’t look at sort of imperializing the sort of—their smaller Shia communities, but they think that a more Shia Arab world will be Iran-friendly.  And the animosity of the Arabs towards Iran has been sort of embedded in the ideology of Arab nationalism.

Now withinIranI think the debate was between Shia supremacists, if you would, who began to argue that this is the age of the Shia, and you got to take the battle to the Wahabbis.  And you know by some fluke they lost.  They lost.  And in fact, there was a lot of bitterness in Iran toward the Saudi policy in AfghanistanandPakistan, as a sort of a very vicious anti-Shia containment policy.

But then there are those who believe that actually the best way for Iran to assume the position of the regional great power is to divert attention away from sectarianism and to focus it on Israel and the United States.  And there is sort of a logic to the line of attack that Ahmadinejad follows. 

But you know, the Sunni rulers are in the palaces in the region.  The United Stateshas good relations with these leaders, but they don’t own the street.  And in fact, it’s better for Iran to sort of champion, if you would, the secular Muslim cause of the cartoons against the prophet, the Israel issue, the Holocaust issue, because this creates a kind of Islamic unity that rises above the Shia-Sunni issue.  And I think for now the Iranians have decided that that’s the way to go. 

Always remember when Abu Musaab Zarqawi gave his, quote-unquote “fatwa” to kill the Shia anywhere, anytime, anyhow.  It was a very rare interview by the deputy commander ofIran’s Revolutionary Guards, probably the most sort of powerful man in Iran, General Zolqadr, who said he didn’t believe there is such as thing as Zarqawi, that these are Zionist agents that are sent to divide Muslims.  And this is long before Ahmadinejad actually made his very first speech on Israel.

But essentially the tack was very clear, that Iranians worried about sectarianism.  It does not serve Iran’s interests.  Iran wants to be a regional power, but it does not want to see a consolidation of an anti-Iran, anti-Shia wall around it.

HAASS:  Let me push you another way.  Imagine you’re one of the influences on Iranian foreign policy, and you go, all things being equal, events in Iraq have, to use an old Soviet phrase, pushed the correlation of forces in our direction—the Iranian Revolution, well into its third decade.  Is there—how would I put it?—a kith and kin dimension to Iranian foreign policy where they’d sit in Tehran and they’d say, okay, that leaves Saudi Arabia as the only other powerful Sunni-dominated country in the Gulf.  We clearly disagree in many ways.  Let’s play the Shia card quietly there.  It’s a way to weaken our—(word inaudible)—neighbor.

Is that the sort of way we should be thinking about this?

NASR:  Partly.  I mean, the record does not show that they are doing this in an aggressive way.  In other words, since the fall of Iraq, Iran has also engaged very extensively with the Saudi regime, particularly with King Abdullah, with who—who has good relations with some among the Iranian leadership.

But—and also I think it varies from case to case.  I mean, the Iranians are far more engaged in Bahrain and in Iraq than they are actually in Saudi Arabia.  And I also think that it’s also wrong to think that Iran is also always in control.  My belief is that the Iraqi Shia, for instance, exert a good deal of influence on Iran in terms of its thinking on Iraq.  These lines of communication run both ways.  Ayatollah Sistani has enormous amount of influence now in Iraq.  For instance his son-in-law is known to routinely consult the most senior ayatollahs in Iran on every decision that he makes and gets their buy-in, and vice versa.

There are the most powerful men in Iran—for instance, Iran’s head of judiciary is an Iraqi.  The most powerful ayatollahs in Iran were born in Najaf, were raised in Najaf, were actually expelled from Iraq by Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and ‘80s.  And they do convey what is Iraqi Shia interest.  And Iraqi Shia interest, in my opinion, is that it does not serve Iraq Shias if the gulf between the U.S. and Iran widens too much.  These are the two pillars of Shia power in Iraq.  And the more Iran and the U.S. are at loggerheads, the worse it is for them. 

Just to close it, I was—at least from my understanding is that there were a good deal of influence on Ayatollah Khomeini’s decisions to endorse talks with our Ambassador Khalilzad over Iraq.

HAASS:  So let me push in one area, which is, one of the ways Iraq could clearly unfold—Noah Feldman was alluding to it earlier—to say—is in the direction of civil war.  It’s a little bit almost like Malcolm Gladwell.  It’s kind of hard to say exactly when a country falls into civil war.  I’d say it’s not there.  And we may or may not know it when we see it.  But there’s clearly some straws in the wind.  Imagine this is to happen.  What are the consequences for societies around the Middle Eastwhere you have Shia populations?

AJAMI:  I don’t really know.  Or maybe I could say, “as I say in my book.”  (Laughter.)  Now, I—I mean, it’s hard to know.

Look, the Sunni-Shia feud is a very lethal one.  It’s a very primitive one.  And it’s a very embarrassing one.  And the conceit of modernism was that it would disappear.  I mean this was really the conceit of my generation was that sectarianism would disappear.  But it didn’t disappear. 

In the ‘80s—in the ‘80s, with the rise of Khomeini, the Sunni-Shia feud appeared again.  It appeared again with some force.

And the secret, if you will, the terrible secret of Arab nationalism, as Vali was talking about, was that it was covert Sunni Islam—like all of Arab nationalism is Sunni Islam and Christian Arab literati.  That’s the whole orthodoxy of Middle Eastern studies, by the way.  That’s why most Middle Eastern studies is completely unsympathetic to the Shia, because it just rests on this kind of combination of Sunni assumptions, with the Christian Arab literati writing the story.

So the Sunni-Shia issue was there.  Then it escalated during the Iranian revolution; then it retreated.  It retreated when, interestingly enough, once Saddam came and sacked Kuwait and people discovered the Sunni can actually undo Sunnis, all of a sudden the question of the Sunni-Shia feud appeared to dissipate.  It has risen again now.  It’s always there; it’s like dormant.  Something stirs it up.  Something brings it to life. 

I personally don’t think that civil war is the future of Iraq, but that’s—because I say so in my book, I have to (laughter)—

HAASS:  That’s another conversation.

AJAMI:  Yes. 

GAUSE:  Richard, could I just say something about that, because I do think that the future ofIraqis the hinge on which all of this is going to turn.  The longer there’s an unsettled situation or civil war, sectarian conflict in Iraq, the more I think that Iraqi Shia parties and groups are going to have to rely onIran.  Because we’re not going to be there all that much longer, and already we, our government, has basically said that well, we put the Shia in power, but now we’ve got to help the Sunnis get in power.  I mean, Khalilzad’s nickname these days in Baghdad, people tell me, is Abu Omar, which is kind of a very nasty thing for a Shia to say about somebody, because it means you’re pro-Sunni and you’re willing to kill the Shia. 

So it seems to me that the longer Iraq is unsettled, the more reliant Iraqi Shia parties, individuals and groups are going to become on Iran.  And to that extent, I think it becomes then a self-fulfilling prophecy for other rulers in the region, in the Gulf particularly, who look and see an unstable Iraq, which eventually the Shia are going to win, just out of demographics, with Shia groups becoming more reliant on Iran.  And then it becomes a question of a conflation of basic balance-of-power politics with this sectarian penchant.  And I think that that could be the worst of all results.

AJAMI:  May I, just one second?  Absolutely untrue, the idea that the Iraqi Shia would rely on Iran.  Listen, they are living off the land.  These gangs, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, they’re living off the land.  Let me emphasize that.  They have their own oil; they have their own resources; they have their own gunmen.  Trust me.  I’ve roamedIraqfrom north to south.  This idea that they will rely on the Iranians absolutely is false.

GAUSE:  Don’t they need a regional ally, Fouad?

AJAMI:  They’ve got it.  They’ve got it, but it’s a fight within Iraq.  And actually, the idea that—remember what we said at the beginning, the idea that the Iraqi Shia are just ready to run away with Iraq, it’s too complicated—

GAUSE:  No, but that’s not what I said, Fouad.  What I said is that these guys need allies.  I don’t think that they have some kind of primordial loyalty to Qumand they’ll do whatever the Iranians say.  But the politics of Iraq will force them—now once Iraq gets settled down, then they’re going to assert their state interests, which will take them away from Iran.  But in the fight, they need a regional ally, it seems to me.  It doesn’t have much to do with sectarian loyalty; it’s going to balance the power of politics and who their friends are.

HAASS:  I’ve just got one or two more questions and then I’ll open it up. 

I want to come back also to—partly to Iraq, but also the U.S.-Iran relationship.  One of the things that people say the United States should put on the table is some sort of a regional security dialogue with the Iranians, as though this would be some sort of an incentive—never quite clear to me why it would be, but anyhow—many of my colleagues constantly say it is, so let’s posit that that’s true.  What are the consequences for Shia-Sunni friction for that?  I mean, does that make it more important; more desirable, but less feasible?  When one looks ahead at the future of this part of the world, does this become in some ways the principal fault line, this Shia-Sunni fault line in the region, or is that again totally dependant upon how Iraq evolves?  Or, just let’s posit thatIraqremains messy; there’s Shia-Sunni friction for years to come, whether or not it actually escalates into civil war.  Does this now become the principal fault line?  I mean, already here we’ve been talking for however long—indeed, the entire day—and I think we’re about to set the Guinness Book of Records for the longest conversations about this part of the world where the Palestinian issue is not mentioned.  (Laughter.)  And 10 years ago, that would not have happened.  Is this now emerging as the principal fault line in this part of the world, this question of Sunni-Shia relations?

NASR:  I would say yes, because I also have a book coming out.  (Laughter.)   No, but actually, in some ways, because what’s happening in Iraq has the potential of being replicated elsewhere, because the struggle for power in places like Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, are not settled.  And I think—I don’t call it a security conference, but I do think it is imperative for the United States to bring the neighbors, and I mean all the neighbors—that’s Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran—into a regional discussion about Iraq similar to the one that happened around Afghanistan.  And the reason for that is that it’s not only the Shias who might have as interest in an ally outside, but so will the insurgents.  And I can tell you, the natural allies for them happen to be our allies as well (are ?) the same ones who talk about the Shia Crescent, or it will be Saudi Arabia, if they’re not actually already involved.

But I think also it’s not only important to bring them in.  And I think one of the contributions of bringing Iran in is also to avert the Shia conflict between the Sadrists and SCIRI, the Badr Brigade and this other group, because that can actually make the security issue in Iraq far worse than it is right now and make it much more difficult for the U.S.

But I also think that an engagement of the same neighbors that are likely to also be present at the discussion on Bahrain and on Saudi Arabiaand elsewhere will create the framework for giving a softer landing to sectarianism, which is bound to follow after, regardless of what the outcome in Iraq is.  I mean, the demographics in the region means sooner or later, within each country—not because there’s pan-Shiism, but within each country the Shias will ultimately demand power and the Sunnis will ultimately resist it.  In other words, we’re going to be facing sectarian violence or sectarian compromise, depending on how the region as a whole sets an example in Iraq. 

I believe that we are investing not only in helping Iraq at this point but bringing neighbors on.  We’re really investing for a broader, you know, regional way of dealing with this down the road.

HAASS:  Let me just then ask you all in a sense the same question, and then we’ll open it up.  And maybe you’ve just given your answer, Vali.  Given everything we’ve been talking about here—I’m an ex-policymaker, and my favorite question is, so what?  Okay, so one of the “so-whats” is you’re basically arguing for the Iraqi equivalent of the Six plus Two for Afghanistan—

NASR:  Right.

HAASS:  —that there ought to be some sort of a regional mechanism for dealing with the future ofIraq, for all sorts of reasons.  What other policy consequences flow out of this conversation?  Imagine you were having this with the president or Secretary Rice or whatever—whoever.  What then would theUnited States do differently, given that it had gotten smarter as a result of hearing this conversation?


AJAMI:  I’m not a policy guy, so that’s the warning.  But I think you can read—I mean, part of what I tried to do and part of what I’ve tried to do in this discussion here today and other places is to just simply tell people, look, read this through Arab eyes.  See it through Arab eyes.  Don’t be fooled by these characters who come and represent to you this grave menace of this crescent of Shiism.  And Richard is absolutely right.  I mean, he noted this very interesting fact that this discussion goes on without mentioning the Palestinians.  And this accounts for the hostility of the Palestinians to the project in Iraq, that it has redrawn the map of the region and oriented people away from the Mediterranean toward the Gulf.  So the region is being redrawn.  Its balance is being redrawn. 

And a friend of mine who actually the other day—it was one of these rare moments when you actually listen and you learn, as opposed to your talking.  He said something to me when we were talking about—a Kuwaiti Shia of tremendous intellect—he said if you take Egypt out of the Arab world—and it’s a kind of outlier country, historically, culturally, in every way.  I could spend a couple of hours on that, but we don’t have that.  So we leave Egypt out; there is no Sunni majority in the Arab world, if you leave Egypt out.  The region becomes a group—a multiplicity of communities and sects, and the place of the Shia in that landscape truly changes.  So the region is being redrawn. 

We should not be frightened of radical Shiism; we should understand these things on their own terms.  We should not jump when someone says to us “radical Shiism,” for one interesting reason—right?—9/11.  The 19 who came our way were not Shia.  They were good Sunni boys, and we should remind the Arab regimes when they try to frighten us out of our skins that in fact that we also met another menace, which is radical Sunnism.

HAASS:  Greg?

GAUSE:  I think that to echo Fouad, although I think some of my friends in Cairo might object to the notion that you can remove Egypt from the Arab world and that it’s always been rather marginal.  (Scattered laughter.)  I think that, you know, my bottom line is what not to do more than what to do, because I don’t have any brilliant answers about how to get us out of the messes that we’re in right now.  So what not to do is to see this thing through a sectarian prism.  I think that we should see these states as things that are real.  Now, Iraq might not be real for much longer and its borders might be redrawn, but it’s still going to be what happens in Iraq that’s going to determine Iraq.  It’s not going to be Saudis or Jordanians or even Iranians, and that’s—I mean, it’s great to have contact groups and Six plus Twos.  I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference.

But it does seem to me that we would be mistaken if we saw the Shia as a threat.  I think we would be mistaken if we saw the Shia as, in toto, an opportunity.  I think that we should have policies toward Bahrain and policies towardSaudi Arabia and they might be very different—all right?—because the Shia are a majority in Bahrain and a serious issue.  And in Saudi Arabia, the Shia are a relatively small minority who, if you had real democratic elections in Saudi Arabia today, I think would be in worse shape than they would under the monarchy. 

So it seems to me that what not to do is to see Shiism either as a policy threat or a policy opportunity, but rather accept the fact that these states have a bit more stability and a bit more longevity to them than a lot of people do.

HAASS:  You just heard the—each vote on its own bottom theory of policymaking, which is often not a bad one. 

NASR:   If I just may add, I mean, if policymakers were listening to this discussion, I think there are two things that are important.  One is that we ought to think in terms of our dealings with Iran much more broadly than the nuclear issue.  And I think that that is very key.  Whether we like the regime or not, it plays a far broader regional role.  And secondly it means that, you know, if containing Iran on the nuclear issue means trying to build some kind of a security wall aroundIran, it does fall into this issue. 

Secondly, I think we often are sort of caught between wanting to deny there is sectarianism and then trying to see everything in sectarian terms.  But if you looked at the region itself, particularly in the Arab world, they do see it as sectarian.  They sawIraqas sectarian from the day one.  It’s not the Shias who raised this issue; it was the Sunnis, beginning with Saddam Hussein himself on April 28 when—on his very last tape when he accused the Shia of betraying Iraq the way they had betrayed the Abbasid Empire in 1258.  And ever since then this rhetoric of Iraq essentially being an Iranian project, of being—of Shias betraying the Arab nation, has now sort of seeped into the political discourse and dialogue.  And there is no point for us to actually ignore it.  And I think in many ways we have to be sensitive with what the political mood is in the Arab world.  We are looking at anti-Americanism.  We’re worried about jihadi activities, which, as Fouad said, is not a Shia phenomenon.  In fact, one could look at the Shias in those terms as an opportunity.  At least half the region does not believe in Salafi ideology and is threatened by it. 

But there is one way to look at what presidents and policymakers say.  There’s another one—is to also take seriously what the political sentiment on the street is. 

HAASS:  Thanks. 

With that, let me give up my questioning monopoly and open it up.  We’ve got lots of hands.  Again, just wait for a microphone, introduce yourself and ask the question, or, if you’re going to make a statement, keep it short and have your voice go up towards the end.


QUESTIONER: This is Donald Shriver from Union Theological Seminary.  Some of our Christian contacts in Iraq have said, well, they felt fairly free under Saddam Hussein to practice their religion.  As someone who has for long been interested in the question of religious arguments for religious freedom, is there anything to choose between the Sunni and the Shia approaches to this, in political terms?  Are they both to be rendered somewhat suspect on this issue, or is one friendlier to civil political freedom of religion than the other?

HAASS:  Who wants to take that?

GAUSE:  I don’t know why Fouad’s looking at me.  (Laughter.)  I can tell you from my experience in the Arabian Peninsula, where I’ve done most of my work, that within Sunnism there are particular schools of thought that are profoundly unfriendly to freedom of religious questions, and the Salafi school is quite unfriendly, but I don’t think that that necessarily characterizes all of Sunnism. 

NASR:  I was actually going back to the question that was raised in a previous session.  I think we shouldn’t mix the issue of secularism with sectarianism.  Now, the issue we’re dealing with is identity and whether or not the religious law is applied harshly or not.  I don’t think, you know, there’s a major difference whether the Sunnis dominate—or, I mean, the Sunni fundamentalist party in Iraq dominate or the Shia fundamentalist party in Iraq dominate, and I’m sure they’re going to be both—not going to be good for freedom of religious practice for Christians.  But the issue at hand is not whether they’re secular or not, but whether they’re sectarian or nonsectarian. 

HAASS:  Walter?

QUESTIONER:  Walter Mead, Council on Foreign Relations. I had a question about Arab nationalism, maybe for Fouad but the others may have something to say, too.  And that is if the string of defeats has—and the clear emergence of a non-Sunni Iraq—is it likely or possible that a new kind of Arab nationalism is going to emerge from this rubble, one that’s more sort of consonant with the reality—the, in a sense, multicultural reality of the actual Arab people?

AJAMI:  That’s a difficult question.  I mean, I think—look, there’s one thing about the Arab world which has never ceased to amaze me— having been born there and having spent my life chronicling it—is its indifference to reality—(laughter)—indifference.  It can look at any defeat and name it a great triumph for our people.  (Laughter.)  I wrote that, “The Arab Predicament,” when I was a young man—was about that. 

So I think right now, the Arab intellectual and political elite are in a state of total wrath and anger.  For example, they see what’s going on in Iraq and they are very angry, but they spent years and looked—averted their gaze from the mass graves and the terror of the Takritis and called it progress—and called it progress.  And they extolled the virtues of the cooperation between the Christians and other communities in the Ba’ath Party—the fact that the Ba’ath founder, as all of you know, was Michel Aflaq, who was a Greek Orthodox, and so on. 

This is a time of testing for the Arab world.  I don’t think they are ready to accept this new Iraq; they really are not ready. And they’re just hoping that we will fail.  They see this current struggle as a struggle between American power and the laws of gravity, and they believe that the laws of gravity will prevail.  They believe we will leave and that when we will leave then the old order will rise again. This has always been a steady Arab illusion, if you will.  But it doesn’t matter, because even if we are to leave, the Shia communities have been emancipated.  The fear that the Shia had in Iraq is gone and gone for good.  No one is taking the boys of Sadr City back to the fear of yesterday.  So that’s already happened; the order has already been changed.

HAASS:  Here.  No?  Did you have your hand up?

QUESTIONER:  With respect to the —

HAASS:  First identify yourself for those of us who don’t know —

QUESTIONER:  A.R. Norton from Boston University.  With respect to the comments about civil war, it’s worthy to recall that this label “civil war” is usually placed retrospectively on conflicts.  Certainly in 1851, Americans did not suddenly wake up after Fort Sumter and say we’re in the Civil War.  Not initially.  Certainly, the Lebanese for the first year or two of their civil war did not sort of festoon their headlines with the words “civil war.”  So, you know, objectively speaking, we can debate whether it is or it isn’t, but it seems to me that we can look at these other instances and discover that some institutions survive, some political practices survive, and it can well be what we retrospectively call a civil war, and I suspect that’s what it is in Iraq today.

But my question has to do with another aspect of Iraq.  Greg Gause—and I have to say, the “commenters” on this panel and on the other one have done a very good job of sort of suggesting a nuanced perspective on communities and sects; none are individually suicidal or homicidal, for example. 

But let’s look atIraqfor a moment.  Greg used the phrase, he said, “when Iraq finally settles down.”  Well, maybeIraqis not going to settle down anytime soon.  People are talking about five, seven, nine years more for the Americans.  What happens if the trajectory in Iraq does follow the path of gravity, to use a comment that was just made?  How does that affect your assessment of regional stability and the role of Iran, for example, inIraqand elsewhere?

HAASS:  Greg, do you want to get that?

GAUSE:  No, I don’t think you have to be a geopolitical genius to say that the longer that Iraq is unstable, that there isn’t a government that controls the territory and to conduct foreign relations the region is going to be unstable because players will see both threats and opportunities in which way Iraq goes.  They’ll be more tempted to get involved.  I actually think that it’s amazing that the regional parties—Turkey, various Arab states and Iran—aren’t more involved in Iraq, and that’s probably—or at least in some large measure because we’re there, and to some extent because many of them, I think, particularly the Arab states, are confused about what to do.  And I’m quite amazed at how passive the Saudis have been on Iraqi questions.

But yeah, you know, Dick, I think it eventually will settle down.  Everything settles down.  Lebanon settled down, right?  And —

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike.)

GAUSE:  Sure.  And it might take 15 years.  But I think that as long as Iraq is a battlefield, as long as Iraq is a playing field and not a player in the region, it’s going to be the major geopolitical focus of the area and tensions are going to be relatively high because of it.  I just want to —

HAASS:  (Inaudible)—pretty simple, yeah.

GAUSE:  follow up, just sort of prerogatives of—(inaudible).  On the question of civil wars only becoming clear in retrospect, again, being a former policy type, I don’t think policymakers have that luxury.  If I were sitting in the government, I would want to be very sure about whether I could identify when a tipping point was passed and the civil war dynamic became the principal dynamic in Iraq, because there are clear policy consequences that would follow from that.  And that is an important assessment issue, I would think, facing what’s left of theU.S.intelligence community, to be able to identify exactly when the principal dynamic is no longer Sunni resistance and becomes sectarian conflict. 

It argues for very different policies, when you think that’s either inevitable or you think that’s become the new reality.

AJAMI:  That’s a very good point.  There is something interesting that’s happening in Iraq, by the way.  I don’t say this in my book, unfortunately.  It occurred to me after the galleys were in front of me.   But it’s—for the first time in Iraqi political history and for the first time since the American invasion of Iraq something has happened in Iraq for the first time—a balance of terror has emerged in Iraq.  Historically, the Sunnis had the power, and the Shia, it took them a while to bid for military and political power.  Believe me, now the Sunnis are afraid of the Shia.  This is new, because the Sunnis believed that if you pound the Americans, you can then reduce the Kurds and the Shia to the old subjugation.  Now there really is a balance of terror, and one of the reasons why this prospect of civil war doesn’t frighten me so much is precisely because of this balance of terror. 

The jihadists and the Sunni Arabs and the old Ba’athists know that they have power, and they do have power, and they now know that the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade and the Shia can fight.  They’ve now understood the anthropology a bit, that two people can kill, and I think we have arrived at a very different point in Iraqi political history.

HAASS:  Thanks.  There’s lots of people with their hands up.  I will do my best to get to them.  Don’t hate me if I can’t.

Ambassador Luers.

QUESTIONER:  Bill Luers from UNA of USA—

HAASS:  Bill, just wait for the microphone.  It’s a new tradition here at the council.

QUESTIONER:  Right.  Let me build a little bit on what Vali said with regard to the environment.  It seems to me that whether or not it’s a civil war, it does feel like either a surrogate war or a potentially surrogate war for the region.  That what’s going on inIraqis a play-out of Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s national interests.  They’re functioning as states, to a certain degree.  Is it possible that, rather than a Six plus Two deal that would be worked out or a process that would be begun that you would have a Sunni and Shia senior diplomats go, supported by the Western states, to Saudi Arabia and to Iran and begin the process of determining whether or not this surrogate war could be managed while the United States plans to withdraw?  The benefit to the region would be that the U.S. withdrawal would be linked to some type of a deal between Saudis and the Iranians and which eventually the Western states would buy into, thereby arranging for the United States to get out with some type of buy-in from the region that this surrogate war will not become, when we leave, a regional war. 

HAASS:  Want to take that?

NASR:  Yes.  First of all, I would say that, you know, when Greg says that Saudi Arabiais keeping a low profile, I’m not convinced by that.  I think Saudi Arabia, Jordan, they’re all involved in Iraq.  Partly it’s that we don’t want to know; it’s a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.  We really are not looking very hard at it.  But I mean—and I think everybody’s really investing in an infrastructure of war after the U.S. leaves. 

But I think partly the issue of civil war, we often look to the models that are very familiar to us from recent history.  We look at Yugoslavia, we look at Lebanon.  We look for actual militias and foreign patrons, or we look at Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and say, you know, ethnic cleansing must have an organized, centralized authority to carry it out.  In all likelihood, Iraq may be very different.  We already may not have a full-fledged civil war, but we do have full-fledged civil conflict, and it could actually change the map of that country without ever really breaking out into war.

I mean, alreadyKirkukhas been cleaned out.  The British ambassador to Iraq at one point said that, you know, there’s going to be a referendum in Kirkuk the day that it’s all Kurdish, and it’s happening.  That’s why the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade are moving north, to prevent that from happening.

Various neighborhoods of Baghdad are being cleansed.  We don’t know who the central authority is who’s organizing this.  And we might have, as I was saying, like in India in 1947, you may have large numbers of people dying without ever there being a civil war, without even having proper militias.  So I think even from (Richard’s point ?) of policymaking, I think we should get over this fact that, you know, it hasn’t begun and it can be easily averted.  We are in the middle of this.  The question is how can you stop it, rather than try to sort of think that it hasn’t happened and it, in all likelihood, because of goodness of everybody’s heart, it’s not going to happen. 

HAASS:  Sir —

NASR:  But I do agree.  I mean, I think sort of —

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike)—a surrogate war, is there a way through which nations —

MR.  :  Through diplomatic options.

QUESTIONER: — diplomatic efforts could be made to get the two sides, particularlyIranandSaudi Arabia, to agree to restrain this surrogate war?

GAUSE:  But it’s—but I don’t think it is a surrogate war.  I think this is going to be determined on the ground.  I don’t think the Saudis have that many cards.  I think the Iranians have a few more cards, but they don’t control these parties.  They have influence, and the Saudis might have influence with a couple of Sunni—I’m talking about the Saudi government.  There’s a lot of money going from Saudi Arabiato the Sunni insurgency; there’s no question about that.  But I don’t think the Saudi government has that many cards.  They tried to play some cards early.  Ghazi Yawar, who was the first president during the transition period ofIraq, lived inSaudi Arabia for most of his professional life. 

NASR:  He had a Saudi citizenship.

GAUSE:  He had a Saudi citizenship, all right?  But he’s sidelined now.  I just don’t think that this is the kind of thing that outside powers can—can compose.  Maybe they can talk to each other about self-restraining agreements, but this is something I think is going to be determined on the ground in Iraq, and I’m not really sure that outside powers will be able to compose it.

HAASS:  Sir.

QUESTIONER:  Peter Belk, law firm of Venable.  As of today there have been 2,477 Americans killed in the war in Iraq.  As Sunnis and Shiites work this out, what should the current U.S. force posture be?

HAASS:  I’m actually going to rule that slightly out of order.  I don’t want to turn this into a strategic conversation about Iraq.  I apologize, but that’s going to take this—I really want the focus to be on U.S. policy towards, if you will, greater Shia political activism around the region.  That just takes us—I apologize—this takes us too far afield.

QUESTIONER:  Hassan Nemazee, Nemazee Capital.  Like the panelists, you’ve spoken about the reactions of various countries, but you neglected one country in the Middle East—Israel.  What’s Israel’s policy towards the ascendant Shias?

HAASS:  Israeli policy toward Shia ascendance.  Is there one?  Should there be one? 

GAUSE:  Well, I think they have a little problem with Hezbollah in Lebanon—

AJAMI:  (Chuckles.)  That’s the ascendancy that they worry about.  Exactly.

HAASS:  Is it at all a dynamic, though, when the Israelis look out at the future of Palestinian politics, is there any Shia dimension—if you’re sitting in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem looking at this, is there a Shia dimension to the Palestinian issue?

AJAMI:  Well, there is—in a way—well, there is, which in a way mocks—makes a mockery out of these false categories is that when the Iranians interfere—I mean, Iran is, as we know, this big Persian Shia country.  When they come to Lebanon they have Hezbollah.  When they go to Palestine there is Islamic Jihad.  It’s about money—whom do you subsidize, who does your bidding for you?  And I don’t think it’s so much about these kind of neat ideologies, and it really isn’t this kind of proxy war that the ambassador was talking about.  I think Greg Gause is right.  It’s silly about this discrete, concrete state.  I mean, there is some mixing things.  When the Saudis tried to interfere in Iraq—and you can’t interfere if you don’t let your diplomats go to the country, if you’re too afraid to go there—I mean, I don’t see any Saudis when I go to Iraq, by the way.  They think you’re insane when you say I’m going to Iraq; they say, is there something wrong with you?

When the Saudis were trying to say something about Iraq, the Interior minister of Iraq, Bayan Jabr, who’s now the Finance minister, turned to Saud al-Faisal and said:  “We don’t need any advice from someone who’s a Bedou riding a camel.  I am the heir of several thousand years of civilization,” and I think he became the most popular man in Iraq upon saying this.  (Scattered laughter.)  I mean, let’s be honest. 

NASR:  I will just say, let’s look at it in a completely different way.  In other words, it’s not the Shia issue that would concernIsrael, or maybe others in the region.  It is what the conflict in Iraq is producing; namely, if I were in Israel, I would worry a great deal about what’s coming out of Al Anbar and, you know, whether or not that in some ways will destabilize Jordan, or will it—you know, have an impact on Palestinian discourse.  In other words, it’s not the Shia revival; it’s what the sectarian violence in Iraq is provoking in terms of a whole new militancy that people should really worry about.

GAUSE:  And the rise of Islamist politics has to be profoundly disquieting to Israelis, and this is cross-sectarian.  I mean, Sunni and Shia Islamist political groupings might disagree on all sorts of things, but they do seem to be united on a rejection of the notion that you can have a normal relationship with Israel and that Israel is a legitimate part of the region—something that our nationalism had eventually come around to after a number of beatings. 

But I don’t see that on either side of the sectarian divide.  It’s one of the things that unites, if you will, sectarian Islamist politics.

HAASS:  Jonathan Paris had his hand up.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah.  I think my—Jonathan Paris, MBI International.  My question was partially addressed by the previous question and that is, I’m trying to get into the head of Ahmadinejad, his just radical anti-Israel and anti-Western rhetoric, driven by the idea of trying to sort of become the head of radical Islam that would be under the banners of both Shia and Sunni.  And what reminds me of this new Nasser(ph) is his recent trip to Jakarta, where he had all these young Indonesian Sunnis, you know, believing in him.  So does he have some kind of a transnational appeal.  And does that drive his radical rhetoric?

HAASS:  Want to take that —

NASR :  Well, I think it’s the other way around—namely, the milieu from which he comes—in other words, the Revolutionary Guards, the war veterans and the like, this sort of anti-Semitism, anti-Israeli feeling is extremely strong among them.  And in an undiplomatic way, he basically talks his mind.  But he did stumble, if you would, on something that now has value for Iran’s foreign policy, and there were others who were arguing, essentially, for what you might say a Khomeini foreign policy or—Hezbollah also follows the same line—namely, once you focus on Israel, you tend to sort of erase the sectarian boundary lines.  And I think the Iranian regime has found great utility.  He is popular. His pictures are sold in Damascus and Beirut. I think he’s more popular in Egypt than he is inIran, or at least his Israeli policy is.  And in fact one of the Pakistani generals who was in charge of the jihadi operation said that now he is becoming—or Iran is now becoming this sort of a magnet for radicalism, for exactly that kind of posturing.

So I think it’s—you know, his rhetoric sort of fit the moment, but I don’t think he was driven by that kind of calculation.

HAASS:  Rachel Bronson.

QUESTIONER:  Rachel Bronson, Council on Foreign Relations.  Can I go back to Ambassador Luers’ question?  I think he overstated by saying it’s proxy war, but I think he was getting at an interesting point, that the neighbors have incentives to exert their own influence.  And they may actually be more important to what’s going on, in that if we just had some sort of agreement between the parties on the ground that in and of itself might not come to anything, if the outside neighbors don’t buy into it as well.  So is there a role for the United States as we think about engaging with Iran on their nuclear issue to say if we really do want to pull out of Iraq, and there seems to be quite determination to do so, that we have to get serious about thinking about how to engage neighbors who may have sectarian and geopolitical and ethnic reasons for mucking around in Iraq when we leave?

NASR:  If I may—I mean on this issue of proxy war, I do share both what Greg and Fouad said in the sense that the states and the actors on the ground matter.  But if the United States is not there and the war is going on, there’s a great deal of incentive, at least—you know, this is debated in Iran, for instance—to go in, because Iran cannot afford, if you would, either a totally autonomous Kurdish region to the north which could be supporting Kurdish ethnic uprising in Iran, which it’s already doing, or that the troubles in Basra begin to spread out among the Iranian Shia Arabs across the border.  So partly I think that’s exactly what is keeping Iran in a holding pattern.  Iran has an incentive in keeping the United States busy in Iraq, but at the same time, it doesn’t want a meltdown, or it doesn’t want the U.S. to leave too easily, because then, I think, the Iranians feel that they will be sucked in, whether they like it or not.  And at that point, it will become, regardless of what the facts on the ground, or forces on the ground are, you’re likely to have regional powers come in.

I think if there is diplomacy, it has to be directed at trying to avert that scenario, because I think everybody in the region, even though they have divergent interests, they have common interests that nobody wants to get bogged down directly in Iraq, because it’s unpredictable and it’s expensive.  And everybody would rather the U.S. takes care of the problem, rather than they do.  And that’s a good beginning—in other words, that is one bargaining chip the U.S. has in trying to get some kind of consensus. 

HAASS:  It’s nice to know there’s support for U.S. primacy.  (Laughter.)  

In the fourth row, there’s a gentleman there who’s been very patient.  Oh, Richard  Bulliet, I’m sorry.  I didn’t see—

QUESTIONER:  Dick Bulliet, Columbia University.  I’m always leery of policy-related discussions that stick within a set of pretty clear factors, because it seems to me that some of the worst anti-Shiite actions are taking place in Pakistan and have been going on for years, and that Salafi influence in Pakistan and Saudi money is very abundant in keeping this going.  I’m just wondering whether the issue of sectarian violence maybe we haven’t taken a broad enough view of where this could occur, because we seem to all live in the belief that one Pakistani dictator will live forever and make sure that nothing ever happens there untoward, from an American point of view.

GAUSE:  Let me broaden it out, which is whether we are in an era now in the Arab and Muslim world where again sectarianism is going to become a more—we can argue whether it’s the most important dynamic, but it’s going to become a more significant dynamic, for various sets of reasons, than it has been of late.  And whether—because obviously—and then, to the extent that is, what then do outsiders intelligently do about it?

MR.     :  Go ahead.

GAUSE:  I mean, I have a short-term and a long-term.  I think in the short term, particularly given what’s happening inIraqand in Iraqi politics itself, sectarianism is on the rise and there’s no question about that.  And I think that there’s a bit of a spillover effect of that in other parts of the world.  I’m actually more optimistic, not because of things that are going on in the Shia world, but I think that in the Sunni world, the Takfiri jihadist movement, I think it’s peaked.  And I think it’s the Takfiris, these people who declare Shia non-Muslims—a particularly radical version of the Wahhabi Saudi strain of Islam—I think that these guys have peaked, and I don’t think that—people follow winners, and these guys aren’t winners, and I think they’re going to be losers in Iraq, too.  And I think that not just because of demographics but also because of all sorts of other things.  These guys are going to lose in Iraq, the Takfiris, and I think that the places where Takfiri ideology was quietly encouraged and then tolerated, like Saudi Arabia, are waking up to the fact that this can bite them, too.   I think the natural history of the Sunni Takfiri movement is that it’s peaked; it’s still really important, but it’s on the downslide.  And to the extent that in the Sunni world that extreme sectarianism is on the downslide, that will, I think, two decades out, have given—(inaudible)—be—

HAASS:  Before Fouad speaks, let me through something out which I’d like him to address in the context of his answer.  How to put it?  You’ve got a coin.  One side is sectarianism and the other side is pluralism.  And one could see a greater Shia emergence not necessarily as a sign of inherent or inevitable sectarianism, but also a sign potentially of greater pluralism.  Is that just too optimistic, or is there an element there that might actually work out?

AJAMI:  No, I sympathize with that.  There is something else that’s very interesting which Greg, you know, pointed us to, which is, in fact, we’re really talking about states.  These people are very sly.  Sectarianism can only take you so far.  I mean, I’m reminded of my favorite story about—the realpolitik of these societies is that someone once brought to Mohammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt—they said, you know, “Great ruler, there is this incredible document written by a Florentine, called ‘The Prince’—Machiavelli.  We want to translate it to you to make you manipulate power.”  So they translated it for him, and he began to look at it.  He threw it away.  He said, “I do more than this in a day.”  (Laughter.)  You know, “What is this?” 

HAASS:  The Saudis say the same story about Abdul Aziz.

AJAMI:  Exactly.  So what are we talking about?  Recently, the Alawite regime in Syria got in trouble, right?  The murder of Hariri, a whole bunch of—the challenge to American power in Iraq, et cetera, et cetera.  Guess who came to rescue and bail out the Sunni—the Alawite regime inDamascus?  The rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  They are now fronting for Bashar al-Assad in Washingtonand in the region, because they’re worried about him.  They don’t want him to fall. 

So yes, sectarianism, yes it does have a claim on people, but fundamentally, it’s about power.  And the shrewdness of these people in power explains why they have big palaces, fat bank accounts, huge planes, et cetera, et cetera, and rule big countries.  So don’t worry about them.  Don’t spend a lot of time worried about them.  Today Toby Jones, for example, was worried about al-Saud.  Don’t worry about them.  Al-Saud can take care of al-Saud.  They’ve taken care of al-Saud for a long time. 

So sectarianism is a factor and, as I said, it can be manipulated, but the fundamental drive to power and self-preservation is really just immensely, immensely powerful.

HAASS:  Let me ask a version of that question then for Vali, which is if one’s talking about the relative or absolute rise of Shiism, it can turn out well if one or two or maybe both things happen.  One is the dynamic of Shiism itself is not inherently threatening, or second of all, whether Sunni Islam, which will somehow have to accommodate it, is potentially accommodating—whether it has enough flexibility and tolerance in it to give it space and give it room.  Is that a conceivable scenario, or not?  That requires something of both sides.

NASR:  Well, absolutely.  I think, as Fouad was saying, if the existing power structure is going to resist threats, they do so by raising the banner of sectarianism.  Pluralism does not serve them.  For instance, possibly in a place like Saudi Arabia, if you really included the Shia, the whole definition of the Wahhabi state and its relationship with other constituents has to be completely recalibrated. 

And then, you know, in different places there are different versions of Islam.  For instance, recently a member of parliament in Egypt wrote a very interesting piece about how Egyptian Sunni Islam has always been much more favorable to the Shia because of the Fatimi dynasty because of the fact that the family of the imams actually took refuge and a lot of their shrines were around Egypt.  And you could see it inCairo, even.  You know, the house of Imam Hussein’s sister is a place of pilgrimage.  His head is buried in a mosque, allegedly, in the middle of Cairo.  But the question is what form of Sunnism is going to dominate the discourse?  I mean, Greg says that Takfiris are on the decline.  We can hope so, but it might be a while. 

But I mean, the example of Pakistan—and Pakistan had an enormous amount of pluralism and a very tolerant Islam that makes the spirituality—Shias and Sunnis and—but within a 20-year time period, as the policy of containing Iran and Pakistan meant an enormous amount of investment, the lay of the land changed.  And in fact, the hard-line Sunnism that is now waging the violence that was mentioned is not the one that was home-grown there, you know, over the centuries. 

So I think the question is not that the Sunnis and Shias can live together.  They clearly could if they were not sort of bound together by this power structure that is defending itself by raising the specter of sectarianism.  And I repeat this:  It’s not the Shias who raise the sectarian question.  They just want a claim to power within their own countries.  It is the Sunni establishment and the hard-line Sunnis that raise the issue of sectarianism.

HAASS:  A good place to end.  Let me just quickly issue a few thanks.  To the three wise men to my left, this really is a treat; again, to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; Steven Cook, who really was the organizing force behind this.  To those who did the previous panels, to the staff here, and, far from least, you all for your commitment, your interest, and your endurance.  So thank you all, and again, thank these three gentlemen on my left.  (Applause.)







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